Google releases data on governments' demands for user data, site censorship

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Advertisers aren't the only ones hungry for data on online users. So are U.S. and foreign governments, according to Internet giant Google.

The online search provider disclosed how often it receives requests for private information from government authorities around the globe, as well as demands to censor its applications. The company said it hopes to shed light on the practices of governments and on a growing push to block information on the Web.

"We at Google believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship online," said David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer.

He said more than 40 governments censor information today, up from four in 2002. China has put up firewalls so that domestic users cannot access information, as well as technological barricades that prevent users from communicating with each other.

Google showed that Brazil and the United States made the most requests for private user data from July to December of 2009. Each nation asked more than 3,000 times for such information on users of YouTube and the social networking site Orkut, for example.

Brazil and Germany topped the list for nations demanding the removal of online material. Brazil asked the company more than 150 times to take down pages on Orkut, which is popular there and on which users were impersonating individuals. In Germany, many requests involved removing material that was pro-Nazi or that related to defamation lawsuits, the company said.

Google did not supply information about China. It said that country regards "censorship demands as state secrets, so we cannot disclose that information at this time."

The figures provided by Google are murky and contain variables. A request to take down one Web site can be counted the same as a request to take down hundreds of Web addresses, the company said. Google said it will update its figures every six months and hopes to refine them to provide more detailed information.

Little of the information Google provided related directly to the company's battle against online censorship, which led to a decision to move its search business out of China last month. Google said many of the global requests were legitimate. Law enforcement agencies often ask, for example, for the removal of Web sites dealing with child pornography or that violate standards on violent material and nudity on sites such as YouTube.

The information highlights how some nations handle online content differently than others. Italy, for example, has stronger privacy laws online than the United States. In India, defamation complaints have been taken to local police, who then contact Google to sniff out impostors on Orkut.

High-tech and telecom firms have long complained about the demands placed on them by local and federal law enforcement to hand over information about users' behavior on their Web sites and networks.

On Monday, Amazon sued North Carolina's tax authorities for allegedly demanding names and contact information for customers and details about purchases from the online retailer, including specific book titles. Kenneth R. Lay, secretary of the state's Department of Revenue, disputed Amazon's assertions, saying the agency did not ask for specific book titles but only for general information about what customers bought.

Facebook is regularly asked by state and local law enforcement to hand over information in civil and criminal cases. Microsoft has pushed for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to include cloud computing applications, so that user data can be protected -- particularly from foreign and local government demands for information.

Some of the biggest Internet firms said they did not immediately plan to follow Google's action. Yahoo said that law enforcement demands affect a tiny fraction of its user base and that it does not generally discuss such information.

Microsoft said it is working toward a framework through a coalition with other companies and public interest groups that would provide more transparency on government demands for customer information.

Facebook said Tuesday evening that it is still examining Google's online tool for government data requests.

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